The high life

Emily Green is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

DALE PENDELL has the kind of counterculture bona fides that either kill you or make you eccentric. He was in the Bay Area leading up to the Summer of Love. In 14 years living in and out of the Sierra, he botanized with old miners, hooked up with Gary Snyder, started a poetry journal and published Allen Ginsberg. He did just about every drug with a street value until 1989, when he curbed taking them, the better to be able to write about them. “Pharmako Poeia,” the first of a trilogy, appeared in 1995; the second, “Pharmako Dynamis” in 2002; and the third, “Pharmako Gnosis,” last year. If there has ever been a more sustained but unremarked effort to shock, it would be hard to find. All three books have gone largely unnoticed.

It’s a shame. They could not be more collectible, particularly volumes one and two. It might have been the style. They were conceived as epic poems, shifting freely between poetry, chemistry, taxonomy and bouts of backchat. It might have been censorship. Perhaps the book-reviewing world Just Said No. More likely, Pendell has bet his career on a subject that exists in a twilight beyond polite conversation. He writes in a country where doing drugs is so basic to youth that it might as well be curricular, and denying having done them is just as basic a rite of passage into adulthood.

For those interested in some recidivism, the books are helpfully arranged by high. Volume one is devoted to dreamy stuff: alcohol, absinthe, heroin and pot. Volume two’s about speed: caffeine, amphetamines, cocaine, Ecstasy and more. Volume three, it’s a trip. It’s about psilocybin, mescal, peyote and LSD.


Every subject has its perils. Compared with the first two books, the third is blurry and grandiose. One wonders whether the wine taster forgot to spit. The best line about acid is a closing fillip in which he remarks on “a certain sparkle.” There are even baseball stories -- including the legendary one about Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis throwing a 1970 no-hitter against the San Diego Padres after taking a tab of acid.

Every so often you think Pendell’s in earnest sociological mode, as when he delivers a list of uses of peyote, until you arrive at the entry “a good reason to get people together and enjoy each other.” Dangling acid before the inexperienced, he taunts, “Pop a ten strip!” (That’s enough to have a football team dancing to “Swan Lake.”) “You deserve such joy!” he baits. “You deserve release from so many years of encrusted cynicism. You have worn your pain as a hair shirt, a burden-basket trumped and creased on your forehead. Lay it down. Give it to Jesus. Give it to Buddha. Give it to the great psychedelic Earth, and let the Earth respond and accept you just as you are. You deserve it.” Then his alter egos, protestants all, appear:

And now, O Arbiters of Responsibility, what do I deserve?

A flogging, I’d say.

He wishes. What he got instead was stony silence from the daylight world of modern America.